Commentary: Already, a Crush at the Soup Kitchens

By Aaron Bernstein

Even in the best of times, the U.S. has millions of low-income families that face a financial emergency at some point during the year and take the humiliating step of going to a soup kitchen or food pantry for help. Now, an exhaustive study by America's Second Harvest, a non-profit that supplies much of the nation's emergency food aid, estimates that the ranks of hungry Americans will jump to 23.3 million this year, up 9% from the Chicago group's last survey in 1997.

The survey, released on Nov. 14, offers grim news about the slowing economy's impact on the poorest Americans. It suggests that the pain at the very bottom of society started almost as soon as economic conditions began to deteriorate last fall. And prospects are likely to worsen if the economy continues to sink. That's because those who are likely to need food aid tend to be in vulnerable groups, such as single mothers and minority women--who have been particularly hard hit by rising layoffs this year.

The findings should spur policymakers in Washington into action. For one thing, the economic stimulus package tearing up Congress can still be tilted more toward low-end families. One option: giving payroll tax rebates to families who were too poor to qualify for the income tax refund most Americans received earlier this year.

CANARY'S WARNING. Congress also may need to accelerate reconsideration of the 1996 welfare reform law, which comes up for renewal next year. Those reforms did wonders in bringing down welfare rolls in a booming economy. But if hunger is already climbing when the jobless rate remains relatively low, today's strict limits on how long mothers can collect welfare may cause huge problems if unemployment rises. "Hunger is like the canary in the mine shaft," says Second Harvest research director Douglas O'Brien. "It goes up right away, even before food stamps or welfare."

Clearly, the new findings are troubling. The Second Harvest survey, a comprehensive sample of 32,000 individuals, accounts for everyone getting food from the 36,000 food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters across the country to which the organization funnels food. Nearly 40% of all recipients are children under 18. Of the adults, 62% are women, 55% are minorities, and 23% are single parents.

Hunger fell in the booming economy of the late 1990s, which provided more jobs and fatter paychecks to even the lowest-income families. Indeed, the Agriculture Dept.'s annual hunger survey showed slight declines through 1999, the last year available. (The 2000 statistics are due out in the next month.) But, in polling food recipients from January to April of this year, Second Harvest's study captured the effects of the rise in joblessness that began last November.

It's no surprise, then, that many of the people showing up for food aid are also among the newly jobless this year. The overall unemployment rate has jumped by 1.5 percentage points in the past year, to 5.4%, as of October. In contrast, the rate for black women 20 years and older has jumped by 3.1 points, to 8.9% in October, while the rate for black men in that age group climbed by only 1 point, to 8%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hispanic women over 20 show a similar pattern: a 2.2-point jump, to 7%--double the increase for Hispanic men. While the BLS data don't break out jobless rates for those in the likely welfare population, black and Hispanic women comprise a majority of that group as well. And they are the ones most likely to work in the marginal, low-wage service jobs that are so vulnerable in the slowdown.

Rising unemployment quickly results in more hunger because many of the poor live so close to the edge. The bottom fifth of households had average aftertax incomes of just $8,761 a year in 1999, the last year available, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank--nearly half the national poverty rate for a family of four. Those who ask for emergency food aid "are the poorest of the poor," says Mark Nord, who's in charge of the Agriculture Dept.'s hunger survey.

At that level, even a handful of lost paychecks can be enough to drive families into begging for help. Unless steps are taken to shore up the very bottom, millions more Americans could be standing in line for their next meal.

Bernstein covers social policy from Washington.

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